Michellene Davis, Esq., Executive Vice President and Chief Corporate Affairs Officer, RWJBarnabas Health. Davis leads social impact and community investment across the system and talked to us about transforming the overall health of communities.

Your program works to improve the health of residents beyond the hospital walls. Why did you make that a priority?

As the state’s largest health care system, we realized we had a unique opportunity to do something bigger and broader beyond just what nonprofit healthcare systems are mandated to do. What we understood is that so much of what impacts health outcomes really happens outside of the walls of the hospital. So we wanted to become part of the solution rather than just ignore the problems that exist in society. We thought we could aim, of course, on continuing to provide high-quality, culturally-competent clinical care within our facilities — but also to begin to address, with laser focus, the social determinants of health, those things that affect us outside of the clinical experience. We don’t call this a program. It’s really a mission change.

Can you tell us about the evolution of the concept of hospitals as “anchor institutions” in their communities? 

It’s the recognition that hospitals are large-scale economic engines in their communities, but unless we are intentional about our presence we miss opportunities to create economic stimulus in those communities. So we simply wanted to make certain that we were turning our mind’s eye toward our daily operations. Who are we hiring? How are we buying goods and services? Are we, in fact, helping to create economic revitalization in the communities where our hospitals reside with a level of high intentionality? We are shifting the way we approach our work in order to accomplish lasting impact.

How do you see social determinants of health — and how are you impacting the lives of people in your hospital communities?

I see social determinants of health as economic instability, lack of education, food insecurity, the lack of affordable housing, and neighborhood and unsafe living environments. But really I think it’s easy to look at where people live, work, play, worship, and age. We are taking an opportunity to view where these aspects of peoples’ lives take place with a focus on where vulnerable populations exist at highest concentration. There’s an initiative, Newark 2020, where we partner with the city and with other corporate entities to say, ‘Listen, we have the ability to change the unemployment rate here by simply hiring individuals from here, by training them, and then creating pipelines and pathways for people to earn a livable wage.’ We are an anchor institution in our communities, so we understand that means that some small employers will also need to build capacity. So we’re willing to invest with our collaborative partners, like Rutgers Business School and others, to ensure that local vendors have the capacity to grow and scale their businesses.

Can you provide some concrete examples?

We are conscious, across the System, to use our collective purchasing power to procure from local, minority, and women-owned businesses. In doing so, we are creating more equitable opportunities for individuals who have continuously and historically been denied. In addition, we are intentional about hiring individuals who live in the communities in which we are anchored. RWJBarnabas Health provides living wage careers with opportunities for advancement. Hiring and buying local stimulates economies in a sustainable way.

Other ways that we seek to improve the health of New Jersey residents, address the systemic issues of poverty to eliminate disparities and enhance equity is through the use of strategic policy and innovative programming in our local communities. For example, we host a greenhouse at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center. Its purpose is to offer fresh fruits and vegetables in an area that is a food desert.  Beyond that it offers education on healthy cooking and nutrition.  This hydroponic greenhouse is the first hospital-affiliated greenhouse in the state of New Jersey that accepts SNAP. It really helped us to begin discussions with the state around SNAP and WIC and the fact that automatic enrollment is required, or else, quite frankly, you are not providing access. Policy, combined with evidenced-based programming, is critical to move this work forward.

Do you see RWJBarnabas Health hospitals and other hospitals leveraging the work of the Quality Institute to advance their population health goals? 

Yes, absolutely. The work that we do is evidence-based and data-driven, so, as a result, we consistently turn to work that the Quality Institute is undertaking to create a framework — and then we work with community partners to design an initiative to ask, ‘What are the elements of the social determinants of health?’ I think that, secondly, all of this work happens in collaboration through a collective impact methodology, right? It is incumbent upon hospitals to partner with municipalities and the state and federal governments to effectuate change. And initiatives like the Quality Institute’s Mayors Wellness Campaign enhance those partnerships.

Finally, we often like to ask a question that sheds light on our subjects beyond policy. So can you tell us what people might be surprised to learn about you, and where people could find you on a sunny day away from work?

Because I am a lawyer by training and worked in state government, people are usually surprised to know that I studied as a sous chef in Italy. Cooking is my therapy. And on a sunny day you will likely find me sitting under a tree with a really great book and joyously being interrupted by the company of several of my nine Godchildren.